A long-standing believer in apprenticeships, Silentnight was quick to step up and lead the development of the Furniture Making Apprenticeship Standard as part of the Government’s Phase 3 Trailblazers initiative. Supported by 106 employers in the sector, the group is chaired by Michael Dingwall, manufacturing manager at Silentnight.

As a company, Silentnight is a real North West success story manufacturing 500,000 mattresses a year and 250,000 divan bases or bed frames. The company was, however, a victim of the recession entering administration to be bought out by HIG Europe.

Since then, with 24% sales increase year-on-year, it offers employment to 675 in the North West, 400 of whom work in the factory manufacturing beds and mattresses. The company currently has 10 graduates of the apprenticeship scheme in full-time employment at Silentnight.

The new apprenticeships are employer-led and designed so they respond to the needs of industry, meaning each apprentice has the skills required by the sector. The schemes are focused on quality so the apprentice has to demonstrate abilities through rigorous assessment at the end of their apprenticeship when they are graded to mark the level of achievement.

Proskills UK Group supports this apprenticeship development with project management using partnerships to develop relevant occupational standards, qualifications, apprenticeships and appropriate training provision. 

Jonathan Ledger, MD of Proskills UK Group says:“It is fantastic that Silentnight and so many furniture employers have decided to lead the way in developing this new breed of apprenticeships. Employers are by far the best source of technical expertise and provide the strategic direction needed to design the best apprenticeships for their industry. We look forward to working with all parts of the furniture industry to realise their ambitions through this industrial partnership approach.”

Furniture & Joinery Production caught up with Michael Dingwall to understand Silentnight’s motivation and to see how the project is developing.

Q: For many years Silentnight has been employing apprentices – what was the motivation for the company to get involved in the Trailblazers initiative?
A: Silentnight has been working with local furniture manufacturers and Burnley College for the last few years, to offer advice on business needs in terms of training and professional development of staff. Apprenticeships have been regularly discussed at these forums and it became apparent that our industry needed to overhaul its apprenticeship frameworks as these were outdated.

The Trailblazers initiative allows businesses to set new apprenticeship standards and, as I am particularly passionate about providing good quality training and education to the young people of our industry, I therefore agreed to the nomination to chair the group. Silentnight has taken on over 25 apprentices in all different disciplines in the last three years, which supports our on-going commitment to quality manufacturing here in the UK. 

By leading this Trailblazer initiative we hope to utilise our 60 years industry experience to help shape the next generation of budding furniture manufacturers, by giving them the skills and knowledge we, as businesses, need.

Q: As factory automation grows and machines increasingly replace operators, is the Trailblazers initiative short-sighted?
A: Far from it. As anyone who has been involved in the furniture industry knows, whilst some amount of automation is possible, this will always be a labour intensive industry. Investing in the long term future of the industry by properly training people with the skills, knowledge and behaviours businesses want, is most definitely not short-sighted. Here at Silentnight, all of our products are handcrafted by experienced professionals at our factory in Barnoldswick in Lancashire. Such fine crafting of the beds cannot be replaced by machines.

Q: What are the pros and cons of this initiative for Silentnight?
A: One advantage is that it will enable Silentnight to be at the forefront of training the next generation of furniture manufacturers, giving them the skills and knowledge set we, as employers, are looking for. It will also mean we will lead in setting the standard for the future of the industry.
As a company, Silentnight will start to get better skilled apprentices who have a much more rounded understanding of our business and industry. We probably take on more apprentices than any other company in our industry and feel this is a recruitment channel that we will continue to use for years to come, so it makes sense to invest time and effort into making the apprenticeship standards as relevant and useful as possible.
There is still an amount of uncertainty regarding the way apprenticeships will be funded in the future. Whilst the Trailblazer initiative itself is not looking at funding, we are certainly concerned about the proposed changes to the way funding will be handled.

Q: It may make sense for businesses with the stature of Silentnight to engage in a process like this, but does it work for the thousands of small and micro-businesses operating across the furniture and joinery industry?
A: It is unlikely that SMEs/micro-businesses can afford the time to steer a Trailblazer initiative, however as part of the process there is a large scale consultation exercise. This will involve the proposed new apprenticeship standards for our industry being made available for all interested parties to read and offer suggestions, changes or improvements. The steering committee is very keen to share the documents with as many people in the industry as possible in spring 2015 for feedback, and we will use nationwide industry bodies, training providers and contact networks to facilitate this. In turn this will also mean that those small or micro businesses will benefit from highly skilled workers who have gone through the scheme elsewhere.

Q: From your perspective as manufacturing manager at Silentnight, what are the key issues and potential solutions that manufacturers struggle with in today’s highly competitive marketplace?
A: Recruiting skilled people to work in our industry is always difficult. Sewing machinists, upholsterers and other specialist skills are not commonplace anymore. Investing the time in developing useful apprenticeship schemes will help address this skill shortage.
One other area that UK manufacturers continue to struggle with in the highly competitive marketplace is the question of manufacturing in the UK versus importing from abroad. With the ever increasing costs of sourcing abroad and the risks and issues associated with doing so, plus the desire for a ‘made in the UK’ story increasing, bringing back manufacturing to the UK has to be worth consideration for many companies.